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A journalistic challenge

Around the world, National Societies help raise awareness about IHL among journalists. One of those efforts, launched by the Australian Red Cross, the New Zealand Red Cross and the ICRC, was the 2011 IHL Journalism Competition. Students were asked to submit a 1,000-word feature article under the title 'Small arms: big humanitarian challenges'.
“Journalists often report on armed conflict and it's vital they have a working knowledge of international humanitarian law,” says Australian Red Cross IHL Officer Eve Massingham. “Journalists working in war zones have certain rights and responsibilities and need to know about the laws of war for their own protection.”

This year’s winning entry, reprinted below, was authored by Zoe Noakes.

Small arms:
big challenges

It is only six am but already thousands of people have gathered around the food distribution trucks parked at Badbaado, on the outskirts of bullet-scarred Mogadishu. What used to be a sprawling neighbourhood has been transformed by war into a squalid and bleak camp, home to 30,000 internally displaced people.

Men queue in one line, women and children in another, and for a couple of hours the food passes from hand to hand without incident. Then chaos breaks out. Government troops begin looting the rations of maize and oil. The civilians, desperate for food, join in the scramble. Armed soldiers beat them back with the butt of their rifles, before the pop of gunfire fills the air. In the aftermath, ten people are dead and the blood of the wounded stains the sandy ground.

The misuse of small arms – portable firearms designed for personal use – has become a serious humanitarian problem. With the majority of wars now fought by small, ill-trained and lightly armed groups, violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) occur with alarming frequency.

In many of the conflicts around the globe, small arms are the weapons of choice, and their impact goes far beyond the effect of a single bullet. The mere threat of a weapon can displace thousands of people, prevent access to aid, and enable the recruitment of child soldiers. And according to Small Arms Survey, there are an estimated 875 million small arms in the world.

The August 5 shooting at Badbaado was just the first in a trio of violent gun-perpetuated incidents in Mogadishu. The shootings were not only horrific; they are also against the law. IHL – the rules that govern how conflicts are fought – requires that all parties to a conflict allow and facilitate the provision of humanitarian assistance to populations in need.

For the millions requiring urgent humanitarian assistance in Somalia, the armed theft of rations is devastating. Small Arms Survey research director Robert Muggah says the availability of small arms worsens an already serious circumstance.

“Heavily armed militia, clan-based groups and armed civilians exacerbates an already terrible situation,” he said. “There is often quite a predatory component to the violence, and relief aid efforts are often severely circumscribed by their presence. There is no doubt that armed violence is making a bad situation worse.”

Based upon the Geneva Conventions, IHL imposes on parties to an armed conflict the legal obligations to reduce unnecessary suffering and to protect civilians and other non-combatants. It is applicable to all situations of armed conflict, regardless of whether those fighting are regular armed groups or non-state armed groups. The ICRC believes the proliferation of weapons in the hands of new and undisciplined actors has outpaced efforts to ensure compliance with these basic rules of warfare. Somalia is an example of this.

Two decades of internal conflict have resulted in a country ruled by war, not law, with civilians bearing the brunt of the fighting amongst the multiple parties.  Abdirahmud Mohamud says the presence of small arms meant “you are always vulnerable”. He fled to Kenya with his family to escape the violence. “We witnessed people being killed in their sleep, neighbours killing each other. It was horrible and I am heartbroken.”

With small arms being used by a widening circle of actors with decreasing levels of accountability, training and discipline, all parties to the conflict have been accused of violating IHL. The use of child soldiers is one example. Under the rules of conflict (most recently strengthened as part of the “Optional protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict,” signed by 142 states in 2002), the recruitment of children under the age of 18 or their participation in hostilities by national armed forces and non-state armed groups is prohibited. However, the presence of small arms enables parties not only to forcibly recruit children, but to train them as fighters using the very weapons they were abducted with. Muggah says the availability of small arms makes ‘child soldiering’ easier and more prolific.

“The fact is that small arms and light weapons are quite simple technologies – the underlying mechanisms have not changed in over 100 years. What is more, they are lightweight, which is why kids are often involved. The cost of arming children is therefore extremely low, which is why we often see them used in conflicts in poorer nations around the world.”

University of Western Sydney international law and human rights law expert Professor Steven Freeland says the rapid rate of weapon distribution makes it difficult for the law to be upheld. “Weapons are distributed at an alarming rate, and education and the realisation that rules apply sometimes works at a much slower pace,” he said. “For example, children who are indoctrinated, or those kidnapped to be involved in conflicts and activities that clearly breach rules – how are they to know, or even if they were to be aware of the fundamental rules, how can they resist them in those circumstances?”

The violence often forces large numbers of people to flee their homes. Refugees and internally displaced populations are prevented from returning home because the weapons remain in circulation. Even before the drought sent the number of refugees skyrocketing, arrival figures were already high due to an upsurge in fighting. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UHCR), the result of fighting in 2011 alone has seen 200,000 people displaced, while 70,000 have fled to neighbouring countries. The malnutrition, disease and starvation that result from the displacement at the point of a gun are indirectly attributable to these weapons.

However, curbing the proliferation of small arms is not easy. For many countries it makes economic sense to sell their weaponry cheaply – it costs money to destroy old and excess arms and ammunition. As a result, small arms are recycled from one conflict to the next. With a rifle lasting up to 40 years, one single weapon in the wrong hands can potentially devastate generations of people.

Professor Freeland says the rampant use of small arms means education about IHL is more important than ever. “It’s a tough issue, and what it means is that we’ve got to be even more vigilant about the education process,” he said. “Not only is it an education process about the rules, but we also have to go deeper than that and work out why these conflicts are happening. The rules are important and law has a very important role to play, but that is not the only thing that has to be done. If we could stop the proliferation of small arms, it would be an absolutely positive thing.”

By Zoe Noakes

For more about ICRC’s efforts to raise awareness about the need to address the proliferation of small arms and the role they play in violations of international humanitarian law. For more, click here:






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